The chances for an end to Syria's war, already slim, are diminishing. In early June 2013, it became clear that Bashar al-Assad's regime was proving itself capable of recapturing some ground previously lost and forcing back many of the rebel groups - perhaps in the process becoming more secure than at any time since the end of 2011. Barack Obama's administration, concerned about such developments - and in a context where Washington-Moscow discussions about a peace conference have made no headway - responded around the middle of the month by promoting the idea of a judicious arming of rebel forces.
The term “judicious” meant in effect sending weapons to the “good” rebels - not the more radical Islamist paramilitaries that have proved adept at urban guerrilla warfare in such areas as Syria's northeastern towns lying along the fertile Euphrates valley. Washington's thinking was that the former, acceptable rebels needed two types of weapon: shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles ("manpads" - a man-portable air-defence system) able to destroy regime helicopters and strike-aircraft, and anti-armour weapons ("ATGW" - anti-tank guided weapons) for use against the regime's tanks and armoured-personnel carriers (APCs).
The sudden escalation of talk about supplying such systems, however, has not been matched by much evidence of action. Mainly this reflects the continuing fear in the United States that the “good” and “bad” rebels were becoming so intermixed that any arms transferred to the former could easily end up in the hands of Islamist groups.
The action-reaction process
Such, at least, was the position as recently as two weeks ago. In that light, a column in this series argued that were the Syrian regime to become more ascendant, Saudi Arabia would intensify its own efforts to ensure Assad's downfall. The column concluded:
“The monarchy in Riyadh, with its longstanding mistrust of Iran, deplores Iran's advantage and sees it as a warning of further threats. It is conceivable that as a result, the Saudis will be far more aggressive in procuring sophisticated weapons for the rebels, including the Islamists to whom they are ideologically close… It is a real possibility that Riyadh - more than London, Paris, Washington or Moscow - will dictate what happens in Syria in the coming months” (see "Syria's war, a new phase", 13 June 2013)
Already, there are definite indications of precisely that outcome - including the delivery of anti-armour missiles to Islamist paramilitaries, and their use against the regime's tanks and APCs. In the past, there have been sporadic reports of such attacks, but on those occasions the missiles may have been obtained from looted government stocks. This time is different: the evidence - including at least ten videos released mainly by Islamist paramilitary groups since the beginning of June, that show actual attacks - suggests that supplies are being imported (see Jeremy Binnie, “Insurgent ATGM attacks on the increase in Syria”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 24 June 2013).
The missiles concerned are semi-automatic wire-guided weapons, mainly Soviet-era AT-5 Spandrel systems, with a range of over a kilometre. They were developed by the Soviet Kula design bureau, first deployed by the Soviet Union in the early 1970s and then elsewhere in its bloc, as well as then Soviet friends such as Iraq (they are still in production, in versions substantially upgraded since the Soviet era).
The Assad regime itself has supplies of these missiles - hence the earlier reports of looting - though now the rebels have a route to accessing fresh stocks. Their acquisition by rebels from supportive states, however, changes the picture; one report suggests that the Saudis have supplied fifty Spandrels (also known as Konkurs) and another points to a “regional state” supplying 250 to the (Islamist) Ahrar al-Sham group.
If such reports prove accurate, there are three implications. The first is that the US, France and other western states may want to accelerate supplies to other rebel groups to avoid the Islamists securing further advantage in repelling the Assad regime's forces. This would produce, for the first time in the war, a number of rebel groups having a substantial anti-armour capability - a direct product, as suggested in the column of 13 June, of Saudi influence on the nature of the conflict.
The second is that by defending urban areas with an anti-armour capability, the rebels will be limiting the regime's infantry-and-armour advance on their positions - in turn making it less likely that the regime will try to take territory, and more tempted to use intense longer-range bombardment that would destroy buildings and deny territory to its enemies.
Put bluntly, that means much more killing.
The third implication is that if such weapons do constrain the regime and even force it on the defensive, then Assad's forces will simply get more help from Iran, Iraq and Russia.
The result, yet more killing.
Several of the more hawkish commentators, especially in the United States and France, are intensifying their calls to arm the rebels; Riyadh remains intent on doing so; and the planned Geneva peace summit is still remote. Overall, the situation on the ground remains stalemated. In this environment, Saudi action and potential western involvement will likely produce (contradictory though it sounds) a much more violent stalemate.
Thus, the new phase in Syria's war carries little prospect of an end. Any possiblity of a move towards even a minimal ceasefire, let alone a serious peace process, requires joint pressure from Russia and the United States. Instead, the talk in the west is encouraging of escalation, something Russia is all too ready to join.